by Ginelle Testa
Toxic positivity. Yes, you heard me. Positivity can leak into toxic wasteland territory.
It’s the coworker who says “just think positive,” when you disclose you suffer from depression. It’s the parent who says your troubles aren’t valid because “someone else has it worse.” It’s the “friend” who claims “everything happens for a reason” when you lose the love of your life. It’s the roommate who tells you that you should “just try harder to get out of bed.”
“Just think positive” negates the reality of depression. Saying “someone else has it worse” invalidates suffering in the moment. Stating “everything happens for a reason,” presumes meaning can be found in everything, and that specific agonies are foreordained. Telling someone to “try harder” when they have a mental illness, or are even just struggling, is like telling someone with asthma to “just breathe.”
My complaint lies with those who find the need to seek a silver lining in everything, to the detriment of well-being and reality. Not everything can be tied up neatly in a bow. The intentions of these people generally aren’t malicious, nor are they trying to say the wrong thing. Instead, their platitudes are the result of a societal pressure to be positive and put-together.
It’s not always the right course of action. As Susan Piver says in Wisdom of a Broken Heart: “Positivity is a dogmatic insistence on turning away from what is painful.” We must be willing to be raw and real.
Recently, I was having doubts in my relationship, wondering if my partner was “the one.” Being bisexual, I thought the grass might be greener elsewhere and that I might be missing out on something else. I was crippled by fear. It sunk into every pore and made a home in me.
I told myself I couldn’t possibly tell him about my woes, because surely they would break his heart and he would judge me. This is where toxic positivity comes into play. Fairy tales and social media paint the picture that we should always be happy, that if you have doubts, something is obviously wrong or you’re broken.
Self-defeating thoughts rang through my head: You’re a terrible girlfriend. You don’t deserve him. You’re broken beyond repair. The beating myself down about not being happy was relentless, until I spoke to a few people who had been there.
My sponsor in a 12-step program shared that when we are future-tripping, or playing out patterns that may or may not happen, it’s impossible to be in the present. And that’s what I was doing: worrying about what hadn’t happened. Bringing myself back into the present moment — being with him just as he was, and just as I was — I was able to voice these doubts with him.
“Babe, I’m feeling a lot of uncertainty and fear about the unknown and not feeling like I know what’s going to happen in our relationship.” I paused after telling him, expecting him to be angry or sad.
“Okay,” he said, “can I do anything to help or do you need space?”
My shoulders dropped and I realized I was holding my breath. That’s it?
“I guess some space would be good.”
We took space, and neither he, myself, nor the relationship fell apart. It actually survived and was built stronger because we were able to be there in the discomfort that is uncertainty. We were able to let go of each other’s hands for a moment, regroup, then come back together.
He gave me the space I needed to feel what I felt. He didn’t shame or blame me. In reality, there was no expectation for a flawless fairytale romance between two grown people who knew they cared about each other. I could be messy in all my glorious humanness.
Eventually I bounced back, and was filled with lovey-dovey feelings again. That never would have happened, though, if I wasn’t given permission — from myself and others — to just sit in the muck for a few. Not forever, but long enough to work through my doubts.
If my sponsor had told me I should just be grateful for the loving relationship I have and not think about what I don’t have? Or, if my partner had shamed me for having a feeling that didn’t have a nice bow wrapped around it? Toxic positivity.
To combat this cultural addiction to false cheerfulness, we must learn to meet emotions, feelings, and actions head on. Not just “good vibes only,” but “real human experiences,” please. What if we were just present? What if we learned to endure?
Ginelle Testa is a queer writer who loves to write about recovery, mental health, and body positivity. In her free time she likes to thrift for eclectic clothes, collect colorful tattoos, and work on the memoir she’s been writing for the last couple of years.